I know many would like to hear, “No, yoga isn’t cultural appropriation.” But it’s complicated.
Let’s address the giant Ganesh (elephant-headed god, son of Shiva and Parvati who removes and sometimes creates obstacles) in the room.
I recently walked into a yoga studio owned by white folks, with classes taught and attended by majority white folks, and there was a huge, beautiful bronze Ganesh statue greeting us all.
I could only laugh at the irony of this elephant in the room.
I love me some Ganesh, but what was he doing here?
The practice of yoga itself is not cultural appropriation. And, at the same time, it is really important to honor and appreciate where a practice comes from, or we risk appropriating it.
Yoga has always been syncretic. It’s been practiced for thousands of years.
It began in what we now call Indus Valley Civilization, and it predated even what we now know as any formal religious practice. It has been changed, reinvented, shaped and reshaped over time.
It is partly this re-imagining that makes it exciting.
It co-existed and was influenced by many traditions such as Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Buddhism, British athleticism, and now the new age movement. Yoga was passed down from teacher to student.
Yoga has always been a living, evolving, changing tradition. It’s changing even now.
But cultural appropriation involves power. Usually a systemic imbalance of power, one that involves exploitation.
Power to pick and choose what we take from a culture and to leave the rest behind.
For example, physical practice, or asana, is one of the eight limbs. So in the Western world, in a lot of places where we see yoga practiced, primarily what is being practiced is one of the eight limbs — asana.
Practicing just one of those eight limbs without practicing the rest is not practicing the full range and depth of what yoga has to offer.
If someone from the dominant culture does a teacher training and choses not to focus on or is unaware of the complexity of yoga’s true aim or the roots of the practices, they are culturally appropriating yoga.
By remaining unaware of the history, roots, complexity and challenges of the heritage from which yoga springs and the challenges it has faced under Western culture, they perpetuate a re-colonization of it.
To me, this is a subtler, newer and very important form of colonization (a fourth wave?) we need to address. Colonizing powers, such as the British, used to take over the land of colonies then utilize and exploit the labor, natural resources, industrial power, and anything deemed of value inherent to that place. Continue reading >>